Sunday 26 January 2020

Knives Out by Rian Johnson

Knives Out is a sheer delight. It came out at the end of 2019 but I've only just caught up with it, so I'll be placing it among my favourite films of 2020.

Knives Out is written and directed by Rian Johnson. I've admired his work from his first feature, Brick, which was a Dashiell Hammett crime drama cleverly mutated into a high school movie.

Since then Johnson has made the time travel thriller Looper, which I liked, and The Last Jedi, which I liked even more.

But I think Knives Out is his finest movie yet. It's an intricately plotted whodunit worthy of Agatha Christie.

It's also a darkly funny comedy with some savage observations about the rich in America. It reminded me in many ways of Ready or Not, though there's no hint of the supernatural here, no whiff of brimstone.

Knives Out tells the story of an ageing and fabulously wealthy patriarch, the wonderfully named Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), who dies under dubious circumstances after a family gathering.

Harlan earned his fortune writing cunningly complex mystery novels and his apparent suicide soon reveals itself to be a murderous puzzle worthy of one of his books.

And there's no shortage of suspects... the Thrombey family is basically a nest of snakes.

At the heart of the story is Marta Cabrera, Harlan's nurse and carer and one of the few people he likes and trusts.

Marta is played by the exquisite Ana de Armas, whom I last saw as Ryan Gosling's virtual girlfriend in Blade Runner 2049. She's a fabulous actress, with a great quality of warmth and empathy which she brings to her character here.

Which doesn't necessarily mean you should trust her... or anyone else in this lovingly convoluted plot.

De Armas is Cuban, but it's a good question what nationality Marta is... in one of the running gags of the movie, all of the Thrombeys have a different notion of where she comes from. (Because they don't care enough to really find out.)

Among these wickedly amusingly and distinctly dubious characters comes a private detective, an eccentric genius again in the Agatha Christie tradition, a southern gentleman called Benoit Blanc, played with aplomb by Daniel Craig.

And he's determined to find out what really happened on the night of Harlan Thrombey's death. What ensues is a beautiful series of twists and surprises, immaculately plotted by Rian Johnson, which will have you on the edge of the seat... where you will also do a lot of laughing.

It's hard to say too much more about this joyful, ingenious romp without providing any spoilers, and I definitely don't want to do that...

But I will tell you that it features an hilarious car chase, and wonderful use of the Rolling Stones song Sweet Virginia in its closing moments.

Don't miss it.

(Image credits: A fine selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday 19 January 2020

Son of Rosemary by Ira Levin

I am only now beginning to give Ira Levin's late novels the credit they're due. 

One reason it's taken a while is because by this time Levin was such a consummate master of his craft. 

His books are so beautifully and smoothly constructed, and make for such effortless reading, that there's a danger of underestimating their brilliance.

Published in 1997, Son of Rosemary is the final novel Ira Levin wrote — it's a great shame that he only ever gave us seven. 
(I should say at this point that if you haven't read Rosemary's Baby you should go away and do that before continuing here — this post is full of spoilers.)

Son of Rosemary is similar to Levin's penultimate novel Sliver (1991) in its focus on an older woman's involvement with a dangerously charming — and possibly just plain dangerous — younger man.

Except in this case the older woman is Rosemary from Rosemary's Baby and the young man is her demonic son, now grown to manhood.

It's a short novel but it moves with a headlong velocity, starting with a brief passage in the present tense as a satanist dentist (yes, one of those) is killed — squished by a runaway taxi. 

At that instant, and still on the first page of the novel, we cut to Rosemary awakening from a coma in a long-term care hospital. 

She has been released from a spell she was put under by the coven who engineered the conspiracy that ended with her becoming Satan's babymother.

The (fantastic and hilarious) ending of the first novel featured Rosemary coming to terms with this situation and turning into a doting mother of Andy, the devil's spawn.

But the coven wanted her out of the way so they make sure the boy grew up evil. Hence the coma... which she has been in for 27 years.

This makes for a fantastically arresting and ingenious beginning for the sequel, with Rosemary's dawning horror as she realises how long she's been asleep. 
It's all beautifully and succinctly conveyed as Rosemary discovers that Andy has become a "charismatic leader and a great communicator." 

Indeed, he's founded a kind of world religion. Andy seems kindly, compassionate, a bringer of peace...

Which causes Rosemary to reflect that, "Either she'd done a really super job of mothering during Andy's early years — or the coven had found a really super disguise for the son of Satan."

As the ferociously slick and streamlined story progresses, Andy reveals that he is not a good guy — and to her credit, Rosemary has been sceptical all along.
The suspense, and the horror, grow until we reach the final sequence, Chapter 18 — or "6+6+6" as it is headed in the book — where the devil himself makes an appearance, sitting with his feet up and "eating caviar out of a pound tin with a spoon."
The book is beautifully, economically, vividly written even its smallest details. Here's the description of champagne being poured into a glass: "the foam fizzed down into pale gold wine."

And there's a wonderfully evocative sequence of Rosemary and Andy walking abroad in a snowbound New York without an entourage or bodyguards — like John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

This is a habit which of course proved tragically fatal for Lennon, and there's a scene in the book where Rosemary visits Lennon's memorial garden in Central Park — although I had no idea this is what it was until I read an explanation online.

This is an example of Ira Levin leaving things unexplained because he wants the reader to do some work. He also includes a puzzle that runs throughout the book.

This is a brain-breaker of an anagram: take "roast mules" and turn it into a common ten letter word that even children use.

I have to confess that I couldn't crack it. I ended up using the computer, and then kicked myself. I'd urge you to try and solve it without cheating...

The solution proves to be a brilliant metaphor for the dizzying ending of this unstoppably fabulous book.

(Image credits: a good selection of covers, some of them breathtakingly irrelevant, from Good Reads.)

Sunday 12 January 2020

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker by Abrams & Terrio

This is a terrific movie. 

It also has a few major weaknesses, which are rather unnecessary and annoying.

Like the supposedly spectacular opening sequences which throw a lot of action at us, but which just fall flat because the audience hasn't been warmed up yet — the film makers haven't given us any situations characters to care about.

They could have saved many millions of dollars and just dropped these. The movie only really begins when we go to Chewy (Joonas Suotamo), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). 

We care about these guys all right, especially Rey. Daisy Ridley has a great face, a killer smile and, above all, lots of heart. 
Adam Driver who plays the bad guy, Kylo Ren, also has a great face. 

Foolishly, it is periodically concealed in a Darth Vader style helmet — though at least the film makers are smart enough to minimise this.

Essentially the movie is about the contrasting faces, and personalities, of Rey and Kylo in a kind of yin-yang opposition. This is the essence of the narrative.

Not the crappy storyline, which consists of the immensely dull and mechanical pursuit of a bunch of boring plot coupons.

As a result of it we get dialogue like, "The location of the wayfinder is inscribed on this dagger." Ouch.

Mind you, that's not as bad as the (apparently unironic) utterance, "I have a bad feeling about this."

However, the action set pieces that are sequenced along this dodgy storyline are truly splendid — like real pearls strung on a dirty, fraying piece of string.

The locations are also first rate, and varied. We go to snow planets, desert planets and ocean planets. And there's a memorable shot near the end where the twin suns of Tatooine wittily echo the double spherical structure of the droid BB-8.

Speaking of BB-8, he gets a new buddy in this movie (I thought it was going to be a romance, but no such luck) with a new droid called D-0 aka 'Cone Face'. 

And there's a lovely warm moment when Rey gives reassurance to the skittish little droid, who has been mistreated in the past. ("You're with us now.")

But it's the conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren which is really wonderful here, with them having a psychic connection which enables the pair to see each other even when they're parsecs apart.

Which leads to the cool discovery that some of the physical objects surrounding Rey or Kylo can spill from one location to the other, when they are psychically connected. And this becomes a neat plot point.

Meanwhile, Rey is in the process of becoming a Jedi and her powers are growing, leading to a glorious bit where she virtually tugs a spaceship back down to the ground to try and stop Chewie being taken prisoner.

Unfortunately this leads to the old Superman problem... Rey is growing so powerful that, for instance, in what should be a nail biting sequence of her climbing at a great height, suspense starts draining away.

After all — isn't she virtually invulnerable?

Much worse, though is the gradual revelation of Rey's background.
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You might recall that she started out in this franchise as a scavenger, a nobody, the lowest of the low. 

Well, all that is discarded here as we discover that she actually has a glamorous background and a secret origin. She isn't a lowborn scumbag like you or me. She's someone special.

This is the fallacy of the "chosen one" that genre writers keep falling into. (My friend Ben Aaronovitch's Peter Grant series is an honourable exception.)
Basically it tells you that if you aren't descended from gods or royalty, then you're worthless.

It's a great shame that a film that otherwise strives for inclusion and diversity should be peddling such damaging nonsense.

It's also incredibly lazy plotting.

But this is still a terrific movie, and a Christmas treat. 

(Image credits: A galaxy of posters at Imp Awards, though Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is reprehensibly under-represented.)

Sunday 5 January 2020

Best Films of 2019

As is traditional in this (purely personal) annual selection, let's start with some movies which didn't quite make the cut...

Toy Story 4 was a surprise. Who would have thought there was still so much life in the old toys? 

This was quite lovely, with great characters, and some terrifically creepy ventriloquist’s dummies who take the franchise into horror movie territory. 

Speaking of horror, Happy Deathday 2U was an excellent sequel which cleverly exploits the possibilities of the original. 

Meanwhile Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle's Yesterday brought home to me, really for the first time, how good the Beatles’ songs were.

I thought Captain Marvel was terrific fun (though the cat shouldn’t have scratched out Nick Fury’s eye). Ben Mendelsohn manages to convey great emotion, despite being covered with a thick layer of latex.

The Mule, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood had a splendidly engrossing story about an old fart drug trafficker, and a superb support cast. It was good, but not quite as good as Eastwood's Gran Torino.  

Midway was an intelligent and often thrilling war movie which did an exemplary job of organising and dramatising historical fact.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker traded powerfully on the wonderful assets of Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver as Rey and Kylo.

Continuing in a science fiction vein, Ad Astra was almost terrific and has some great moments. Like the moon base depicted as a shopping mall, or the tacky therapy room on Mars where they project beautiful scenes of wildlife from Earth. 

The story follows Brad Pitt as he goes after his Colonel Kurtz style dad who is out in the orbit of Neptune with a weapon which can menace the Earth. Cue a journey which is a series of set pieces. 

And some of these set pieces are utterly wonderful, like the moon buggy chase. But then there’s the stupid scene with the rogue monkeys...

The Favourite had striking visuals that evoke Vermeer's painting. There’s also hilarious and engaging — though slightly overdone — use of a fisheye lens. The C- word is also overused in the dialogue. Indeed the whole picture is overdone. 

The Favourite overstays its welcome. At first I thought it was masterpiece, then I thought it just narrowly missed being a masterpiece. 

Finally I thought it narrowly missed being a good movie, though a lot of that might have been to do with a nasty bit of rabbit squashing at the end. 

Speaking of cruelty to rabbits... Us was a superb follow up to Get Out. And since we're back on the subject of horror movies, Midsommar was a little too long, but otherwise quite fabulous.  

Them That Follow was bleak but tremendous. It's a taut, harrowing anecdote about fundamentalist religion in a remote US mountain community where you demonstrate your faith by handling venomous snakes. 
 Walton Goggins moves up to a new level of acting as the local preacher whose teenage daughter (the excellent Alice Englert) has got knocked up — and by an unbeliever, too. "It's time to get clean, girl," he says as he drapes the "serpent" around her shoulders...

We are now among my top movies of the year:

Le Mans 66, with a memorable performance from Christian Bale (Matt Damon is good, too)  was so nearly a great film. The contrived last minute unhappy ending somewhat scuppered it for me. But it still makes it onto this list.

Terminator Dark Fate performed the difficult trick of reviving a franchise that wandered off course over decades. The triumvirate of strong female leads and Mexican setting were both  refreshingly novel.

Ready or Not takes us back to horror movies with a dark and delightful nightmare which aims to do for rich people what Get Out did for white people — and damned near succeeds.

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman was an engrossing masterpiece. At nearly three and a half hours(without intermission) you'll need to take a thermos of coffee if you see it at the cinema. But at home on Netflix you can just savour it's violent, sprawling splendour.
Al Pacino is simply magnificent as Jimmy Hoffa, in his finest performance ever. He deserves an Oscar but won’t get one because of the Netflix thing. I was delighted to see, as the end credits rolled that this was written by the great Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

Green Book, a comedy drama with enormous heart, was utterly superb and I recommend it to you highly. It almost blew my mind when I discovered it was based on a true story.   
But top honours must go to Qunetin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

As this movie counted down to the doomsday on Cielo Drive I had a sneaky, hopeful inkling that Tarantino would rewrite history again like he did in Inglorious Basterds. Thank heavens he did. Fabulous. 
(Image credits: All the posters are from Imp Awards.)